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Blasphemy by Mike Resnick

March 11, 2013 3 comments

Blasphemy

Blasphemy by Mike Resnick (Golden Gryphon, 2010) is, as the title suggests, preoccupied with material that may be taken as showing a certain lack of reverence for Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. So if you are sensitive on matters of religion, this is probably not the book for you. We have five short stories and two longer pieces that were originally published as free-standing novels. “Genesis: The Rejected Canon” is quite a pleasing joke, nicely paced with a good punchline. “God and Mr Slatterman” shows that some bartenders have real people skills when it comes to dealing with difficult customers who might interrupt a crap game at a tense moment just to talk metaphysics. “The Pale Thin God” is a very elegant inversion of expectation demonstrating that judging cause and effect is always a matter of perspective. “How I Wrote the New Testament, Ushered in the Renaissance, and Birdied the Seventeenth Hole at Pebble Beach” is probably the most successful of these short pieces with the true story of the Wandering Jew while “Interview With the Almighty” is less successful — it tries too hard to be amusing.

One of the old favourites when it comes to fables about typecasting is the story of the scorpion that wants to cross a river. After some negotiation, he persuades the frog to carry him with the predictable results. “Walpurgis III” is a very elegant variation on this theme, albeit with more types to make the political point clearer. Let’s start with the psychopathic personality who has refined his skill set to such a point, he can rapidly rise to leadership roles where he’s able to kill increasingly large numbers of people. Up to a certain point in society, it’s the job of police officers to catch the killers. Unfortunately, some killers rise to a point where they become untouchable. Indeed, the increasing irony is that it becomes the job of the police to protect the psychopathic leader. Then there are the politicians, i.e the thinking members of the community who were in power before the psychopath came along. They have to decide what their role should be. Finally, some politicians may decide the best course of action is to hire an assassin to dispose of the leader. This will be an individual who has supreme skills as a killer. He will not judge the task given. It will be irrelevant whether the target is considered a good or bad person. The individual is motivated by the nature of the challenge and the financial rewards. At his level, he can pick and choose which tasks to accept. The idea of penetrating a leader’s security and killing him might very well appeal to him. The result is beautifully orchestrated, switching between the assassin, the policeman and the leader as required. Although the tone is rather different, it reminded me of Wasp by Eric Frank Russell in which a one-man terrorist operation disrupts a world. Thematically, this has a world that’s on the cusp of destruction through the actions of the new leader but only a few truly understand the extent of the danger. The arrival of a single assassin has an increasingly dramatic effect on the lives of the people who live in the vicinity of the leader. Mike Resnick is very careful to strike a balance between the mechanics of the morality play, the description of this rather unique planet, and the excitement of the assassin’s progress towards achieving his goal. It’s a terrific read even though it works out in a fairly predictable way — or to put it another way, the resolution accords with the most commonly accepted principles of morality. To explain the relevance to the theme, the planet has been settled by all the different cults and groups who believe in satanism and the other sources of dark magic.

Mike Resnick exposed to radioactive blue

Mike Resnick exposed to radioactive blue

“The Branch” is playing the most interesting game of the book. Many moons ago in the late-1950s I read Messiah by Gore Vidal. It wasn’t much liked by the critics of the time. They were more inhibited by social convention in those days and the somewhat violent satire on the Christian Church was deeply unpopular. For those of you who have not read it, the primary figure is John Cave. He’s a professional embalmer and so does not consider dying to be a bad thing. When he begins to talk about this belief to the world, a new religion springs up. When he’s assassinated, the meaning of his words is taken up by theocrats who end up ruling over the USA. As an atheist, I’m more comfortable with this exclusively naturalistic approach. The notion one man’s moderately innocent words about the need to accept death might, through televangelism, become the basis of a new credo, is an interesting study in the politics of religion. With the suicide rate rising fast as his followers begin distributing the new drug Cavesway, those with access to power must decide how to react. Mike Resnick, however, muddies the waters by having his figure be a not very bright young conman who slowly comes to realise he’s literally the Messiah the Jews and other followers of the Old Testament have been waiting for. This is not, you understand, a good and inspirational person. Indeed, early on he decides he’s going to challenge a local crime boss for a share in his business. It’s only when bullets seem not to have a permanent effect on him that he and the crime boss come to recognise he’s something “special”. The virtue of the story is that it never blinks. Both the Messiah and his Nemesis behave as you would expect as they struggle to understand the implications of the young man’s arrival and how the world should react. Since one of the expectations of the Messiah is he will restore the Kingdom of Israel in Jerusalem, the current government feels somewhat under pressure when the reality of the “man” and the number of his followers become clear. The other established churches are also disconcerted because this man’s arrival tends to suggest Jesus was not quite what they thought. On balance, the first half of the story is more successful than the second. Although I think the development of the plot is not unrealistic, I feel it lacks conviction. Things happen because they must to produce the ending the author wants to achieve. This leads us away from what I suspect might be the more realistic scenarios. This is not a serious criticism. There is quite a pleasing quality to the conclusion, although I think the epilogue unnecessary.

Put all this together and Blasphemy proves to be never less than interesting at, at times, rivetingly exciting. Mike Resnick proves himself a master storyteller who can take controversial material and make it genuinely entertaining.

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.

Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks by Mike Resnick

November 20, 2012 1 comment

dreamwish beasts and snarks

Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks by Mike Resnick (Golden Gryphon 57, 2009) takes us off hunting in a collection ranging from allegory to a traditional African culture transplanted to another planet to gain the chance of maintaining their culture, to slightly more fantastical beasts caught in the crosshairs of the author’s imagination.

“Hunting the Snark” is one of these safari stories which dumps a group of four immensely wealthy people on a planet that’s never been explored let alone surveyed for dangerous wildlife. The tour company provides a highly experienced hunter, beaters, skinners and cooks. It promises to do its best not to let anyone die. The notion of virgin territory for hunting commands a very high price. Unfortunately, this planet proves to have a predator on top form and so begins the game as, in one kill after another, the home ground advantage proves decisive. The story also asks some nice questions about the different between sentience and intelligence. Not surprisingly, it was nominated for the Nebula Award for Novelette 2001. “Stalking the Unicorn with Gun and Camera” and “Stalking the Vampire” are full of practical hints and tips for the hunter. Remember to take notes as you read these essential guides and, when you leave on the next hunt, don’t forget that vital comb. “Two Hunters in Manhattan” is an alternate history story in which Theodore Roosevelt is mayor of a rather different New York. As a part of his drive to rid the city of organised crime, he finds he has hired Dracula to do what he cannot do: eliminate the kingpins. Unfortunately, Big D prefers draining them rather than handing them over for trial. This makes him a murderer in Roosevelt’s book and so begins a contest. Although this is relatively modern, being published in 2007, it has a pulpy feel to it which makes it rather superficial albeit reasonably entertaining at this length. “Safari: 2103 AD” is true to its ironic theme which is that, to a generation that has no conception of what a wilderness looks like, a walk in the park is a dark and dangerous experience. So what to these futurians is excitement personified is rather pedestrian and dull to us.

In “The Lord of the Jungle”, Lucifer Jones encounters a Tarzan substitute avoiding his English creditors in the heart of the rain forest and working with the gorillas to create a socialist republic. Fortunately the good Lord earns enough to pay off his creditors through his language skills and Mike Resnick cracks some good jokes. “Bwana” is one of the Kirinyaga stories and rather beautiful. Suppose an African tribe takes the opportunity to relocate to a new world that can be shaped into a Utopia for them. They can live in balance with nature, respecting the environment and relying on the animals they take with them for the better management of life and death. If that balance were to be disturbed, there might be some who would call for outside help but that would be dangerous. It might tempt the tribe into forsaking the old ways and embracing new technology. To prevent lasting harm would require great wisdom, and it’s provided with elegance and subtlety by an old man who acts as a guardian of their traditions and religion. This is a story of great passion and an outstanding meditation on the role of a leader who must understand when being seen to do nothing is actually the most aggressive posture.

Mike Resnick has been nominated for more awards than any other writer

Finally, we come to “The Soul Eater” and “Nicobar Lane — The Soul Eater’s Story” which examine what makes a person a hunter through the joint lens formed out of Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick and the fate of the Flying Dutchman. Back in the early days of humanity, the ability to hunt meant survival. Later, the role of the hunter changed to the more routine task of food provider for a community. As farming took over, the majority of hunters quit, only a few persisting as hunting became a sport. The mentality required once basic skills have been perfected is patience and self-confidence. You have to trust yourself to survive and have the patience to keep learning about the animals being hunted. Top professionals will study the anatomy and habits of their favoured prey, identifying the best places to find the animals and the best angles from which to take the shot. This kind of dedication often makes the hunter solitary. From there, it’s only a short step to loneliness and obsession. In this pair of stories, the hero, for want of a better word depending on your view of hunters, is paid by museums of natural history and zoos to hunt down different rare species of animals. His preference is always to kill but, if the price is right, he will control the urge and merely capture. In the longer first story, he finds himself increasingly fascinated by a strange creature he finds out in space. Except, given the vastness of space, if he meets it more than once, is this his superior tracking skills or is the beast seeking him out. If he should finally kill it, what would he do afterwards? Although the story is more than thirty years old and shows its age through a slightly pulpy style and lack of characterisation, it nevertheless nicely captures the nature of the man and the life choices he must make. The second switches point of view and views the hunter from the creature’s side of the relationship — yes, as the pursuit develops, who’s to say the creature’s view of the hunter does not evolve.

Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks is still available to buy at a discount directly from the publisher who deserves our support. There are far too few publishers who believe in the power of the short story, novelette and novella. Golden Gryphon deserves to survive. As to Mike Resnick, there’s no better writer of short fiction around. When he’s on song, the music flows and the ideas are richly developed. Even when he shows his more pulpish side, he’s still immensely readable.

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.

The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch & The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

It’s always interesting to observe the growth and development of jargon — a kind of insiders’ language, a code people can use to impress strangers. Today, I’m particularly interested in the idea of a fix-up novel — one that has been created from a group of short stories. In the days of the pulps, authors would throw off as many stories as possible to keep the dollars coming in. Some never caught the imagination. Others spawned related stories or sequels. Given a growing accumulation of such stories, authors would then edit then for consistency and, more often than not, write new connecting material to create a novel. Whether apocryphally or not, the neologism is attributed to A. E. van Vogt, one of my favourite authors of the so-called Golden Age. The best example of a fix-up is The Voyage of the Space Beagle, later plagiarised in part as the film, Alien (and its sequels).

By accident, I have read two very similar books back-to-back. The first was The Bone Key by Sarah Monette which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same protagonist. The second is The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same organisation. Monette’s book is, in essence, a fix-up without the frame. In other words there is a kind of progression from one story to the next so that, if we close one eye, it can read as a form of picaresque novel, episodic in nature but focused on a single “hero” figure”.

Finch’s book is, as they say, a very different kettle of fish. For those of you interested in epistemology, what we know and how we came to know it can be of critical importance. It gives us a basis upon which to make rational decisions, to assess the credibility of evidence, and so on. Monette’s book gives us multiple and reinforcing images of the same thing. Because of the internal corroborations, we can feel the “truth” of the character even though the linearity of the telling may not be confirmed. Finch has written a number of short stories about the same organisation but there only one overlap of character (between “A World Waiting” and “The Roaring Ground”) and there is no general attempt made to edit the stories to achieve coherence or internal consistency. All we have are eleven different stories plus one non-fiction piece that just happen to be about the role of interpreters in a multilingual extraterrestrial culture. After the first two or three stories I had to stop because I was approaching them in the wrong way. Rather than reading them as stand-alones, I was trying to fit them together to create my own fix-up novel. I suppose there was a deliberate decision made to exclude the kind of background information available at http://www.sff.net/people/sheila-finch/fullhistory.htm

Trying to follow this way leads to frustration because the stories do not fit comfortably together. To that extent, we have to distinguish between this book published by Golden Gryphon which bravely keeps going with its specialisation in collections, and Reading the Bones, which is a fix-up “novel” published by Tachyon Press. This includes the complete text of the title novella, which won the Nebula for best novella of 1998, and then continues with an Interlude to bridge into a second novella “Bright River of Talk”.

But, if you enjoy short stories on their merits, there are some very good stories in this collection. The one which many will know is “Reading the Bones”, but there are some very affecting ideas, well explored as in “Stranger Than Imagination Can” which carefully exposes stereotypes and prejudices. There are, as in any collection, one or two where the ideas are a little threadbare and the execution flat. Overall, this is enjoyable so long as you are not expecting a fix-up.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

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